While risk professionals are great curators of crisis processes, sometimes they can overlook the psychology of challenging situations

One man keen to focus more on the psychological aspects of crisis management is director of the Business Olympian Group and psychologist to elite athletes, Gavin Freeman.

His book, The Business Olympian, captures the lessons learned from working with elite athletes and examines how these skills can be transferred into the corporate world.

And he has many lessons to work with. Freeman was a team psychologist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and Paralympic Games, the 2003 Rugby World Cup. and the 2006 Winter Olympics. He has also worked with a variety of athletes from top-shelf sporting leagues such as the NBA, WNBA and PGA.

StrategicRISK talked with Freeman ahead of his keynote presentation at the RIMS Risk Forum Australasia 2017 on 28 August 2017 to get his insights into the psychology of crisis management.

Heroes and villains

Freeman’s presentation at the RIMS Risk Forum is intriguingly called ‘How Bruce Wayne becomes Batman’, because, as Freeman explains, in a crisis some of us become super heroes while others become villains.

“The title of my talk is driving at the perspective that during the day Bruce Wayne knows exactly how to be the mild-mannered billionaire,” Freeman says. “However, by night-time there is a significant unknown.

“He does not know what he is going to face, he does not know who the criminals are, he does not know what the Joker is going to do. So he has to be prepared for the unknown.”

Freeman says that this tongue-in-cheek backdrop emphasises that we can often face ambiguity in our environment. For example, you might not be able to get to vital information if your data has been hacked.

“This is a very different environment to what most executives like,” he says. “Common sense can’t apply, it has to be common practice. Many executives might say ‘I can respond, I can handle the situation’, and I would say to them ‘what if you are not there, will all your people know exactly how you would respond?’. That is when you are usually met with a stunned look and a response of ‘well, I’m not sure’.”

Even when it comes to negotiations, mergers or law cases, Freeman says, executives want some measure of control during a crisis even when this is not possible

“The difference between good and great is the ability to perform consistently under pressure,” Freeman explains, adding that businesses need comprehensive business continuity or crisis plans, alongside teams fully trained to initiate these plans. Only then can businesses handle incidents and return to work as quickly as possible.

“Most organisations do not have an effective training programme,” he says. “People within an organisation need to be ‘fit’, not ‘trained’. Being walked through a situation – or just having your PA read through the crisis plan – that is just being trained.

“You need to be fit. What you need to be fit is to perform under pressure. It is exactly the same methodology we use with elite athletes. There is no point in just training, without giving those athletes simulations of games, putting them under pressure and seeing how well they respond.”

‘What would happen if an executive was not available?’

Freeman explains this process is achieved at an individual level, as well as at an organisational level. “What I mean by that is, how far down the organisation’s chart are your people well trained in what to do?” he says. “I’m not just talking about emergency management, as that is often taken care of by wardens and emergency services.

“I ask most organisations to go away and look at how their people are trained; what would happen if an executive was not available? Would the next level down actually respond in the same way?”

Freeman says another vital aspect of being ‘fit’ for a crisis is communication. “I challenge organisations to go away and look at their communications because, inevitably, if something is going to go wrong, the speed and mode in which you communicate is vital,” he says.

Discussing the feedback he receives about his views, Freeman says it comes in two forms. “There is the ‘I never thought about it that way, I always thought I would just be okay during the situation’,” he explains. “The other feedback I get is individuals who have been through it, who want to come out and validate it by saying ‘it is so true’.”

Freeman says the feeling of the unknown can be quite debilitating and there are several examples of even seasoned professionals falling apart in challenging circumstances.

“In Australia, we have had some major incidences where people have just gone ‘walkabout’,” he says. “Take the major bushfires in Melbourne a couple of years ago, and the chief of police decided to leave the emergency incident room to go out for dinner.”

Freeman adds that only through planning, preparation and the performance of actual crisis drills can such situations be avoided by risk professionals.